Europe

Published: Saturday December 21, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday December 21, 2013 MYT 8:01:49 AM

Journey to the Adriatic Pearl

‘It is as if the mountains were gently dipping their toes into the Bay,’ said a guidebook describing the coastal drive to Montenegro. – Photos JULIE WONG

‘It is as if the mountains were gently dipping their toes into the Bay,’ said a guidebook describing the coastal drive to Montenegro. – Photos JULIE WONG

Croatia offers a Mediterranean holiday at prices lower than those in central Europe. This writer thinks Dubrovnik is more romantic than Venice, as it has equally charming architecture and none of the crowds.

WHEN I broached the idea of going away to Croatia with two friends, one asked me simply, where is it? And the other one said, “Isn’t that in Eastern Europe?” A question loaded with assumptions of derelict cities lined with boxed-shaped functional architecture associated with the Soviet Era, no English speakers to speak of, and no real beauty or history to imbibe.

Let’s face it, I didn’t really know any better. But I did know that a trip there was braved and pioneered by an ex-boss of mine who had wonderful things to say about it. The bottom line was I didn’t have the money to spend on a Mediterranean holiday in Central Europe and the other suggestions on the table were a week in Tuscany, the Greek islands or south of Spain.

So, my sales pitch to my friends was: “Croatia is by the coast, has great seafood and will cost us half the price of a Central European trip!”

They bought it! So three childhood friends who never dreamt that they would be travelling together set off to Croatia. Our route: Split–Hvar Island–Dubrovnik–Montenegro: a less traversed Mediterranean holiday.

Split is a coastal city and the second biggest in Croatia. The most prominent feature of Split is its beautiful palm tree-lined seafront promenade.

Sipping coffee at the seafront promenade of Split. 
Sipping coffee at the seafront promenade of Split.

Tourists happily pay a premium to lounge in one of the many cafés that line this promenade overlooking the harbour, as the entire strip exudes a relaxing holiday ambiance.

Rising high behind the cafés are the walls of an ancient Diocletian Palace.

As we strolled down the promenade, we noticed an unassuming entrance that led into the museum or specifically, the subterranean structure of the palace.

Wandering around the dark derelict underground chambers of this Unesco World Heritage Site, I thought to myself, “Nothing special, really!”However, when I found out that the Roman structure I was in was 1,800 years old, I suddenly realised I was having a very special experience indeed. It is funny how perspective can change one’s experience. But jokes aside, it was special. Here’s why.

The palace was designed much like a fort. Exiting the subterranean chamber through the souvenir stall-lined corridors towards the palace courtyard, we noticed we were in the heart of the city.

It was only when we spotted remnants of what must have once been a beautiful facade, that we realised the modern city had encroached into this partly-preserved ancient structure. In fact, local residents today still inhabit parts of the upper floors of this palace.

As we meandered through the narrow streets, we could not help noticing café after café selling rattan baskets of deep-fried seafood. That was before we chanced upon the open markets selling mounds of fruit, nuts and an assortment of homemade products. We most definitely wanted to eat our fill of these because the next day we were taking the ferry to Hvar Island where things are a little dearer.

That evening, we walked up to the highest point of a hill. Happily chatting as we passed a little old man hobbling on a stick, we heard him ask aloud: “I wonder where that accent is from? ”When we responded that we were Malaysians, he looked at us and said: “Ah, the country with the three races!”

I was taken aback. Even the immigration officer that morning didn’t know where my country was and here was this little old man accurately describing what was quintessentially Malaysian. We asked him how he knew.

He said “Aahh”, tapped his nose, winked at us and said, “I was once a reconnaissance double agent for both Serbia and Bosnia, and it was my job to know everything!” That got our full attention. As we walked down the hill, he regaled us with stories of the past. It was lovely to learn about Croatia from a local.

The next day, we headed to Hvar by ferry. It was a one-hour ride. As the ferry pulled into the port, we noted its pristine blue waters. Whoever heard of a port with clear blue waters? Well, here it was. Off the side of the bay, you could find small sandy patches atop rocks with steps leading into the sea. This is romanticising at its peak. Who wouldn’t want a “beach” for two?

Hvar port looks like a smaller version of the one in Split. But this time, instead of palace walls, one is greeted by a view of homes built gently into the slopes that rise behind the promenade. Any accommodation you book on these slopes will provide you with a picture-perfect view of a Mediterranean seascape – which is what we did!

The most popular activity in Hvar is sailing to the many other islands in the vicinity.

Depending on your budget and time available, sailing packages can range from a couple of hours to multiple days, usually with lunch thrown in. You can go swimming too, if you wish. Prices in spring and autumn are usually significantly cheaper than in summer; however, although the water looks irresistibly inviting, the water temperature will come as a shock to the senses. Still, it is worth a dip.

We chose to spend an entire day sailing on the Adriatic, with the wind in our hair and salt sprays soaking our skin. For lunch, we stopped at an island and were treated to a hearty traditional Croatian stew. Over lunch, we learnt that our (tanned and handsome) skipper is a farmer who takes advantage of the tourist season to earn some extra money.

Just as inquisitive as we were of his culture, he too had questions for us, as he had never met Malaysian girls before. We returned home that evening exhausted but tanned and happy.

The rest of our time there was spent walking up to an old hilltop castle, chancing upon a beekeeper tending to his bees, wandering along the cobbled streets, visiting the many art galleries there and relaxing while sipping cups of tea. At night, I persuaded my friends to take a 30-minute stroll along the beach to a quaint little family-owned beach restaurant. It’s possible the food was only delicious because we were starving but once we were there, it was magical hearing the sound of the waves while feasting on seafood.

Then it was time to board the ferry again – to Korcula. As Korcula had nothing to offer, we booked a car and driver to take us straight to Dubrovnik, a three-hour drive away. The drive there was spectacular as we got to see both the coastline and the countryside of Croatia. By the time we got to Dubrovnik, it was late so we checked into our accommodation.

As we were guided to our lofted apartment, Mr Grouchy the landlord took it upon himself to inform us that the house was a few hundred years old, and sternly warned us to be extra careful around the many relics that could be found in it.

As we were minutes from the old fort and not quite ready to go to bed, we stole into the night to get our first glimpse of the stone city that has captured hearts for centuries. As we entered the gates of the old city, we felt as if we had been transported back in time.The Gothic-Renaissance architecture, with yellow lighting that glinted against the medieval walls and cobbled streets, made the entire city look like it was made of gold. It was a Unesco World Heritage “sight” that was mesmerising. We each bought a gelato (ice cream) from a nearby gelateria and strolled along the streets, enjoying the music from nearby cafés and soaking in the beauty of the city.

The next day, we woke up bright and early and visited the markets for fresh seafood and vegetables. Our cheeky attempts to bargain were well received. After spending a few hours walking the entire breadth of the city and taking pictures to our hearts’ content, we headed home to cook ourselves a Mediterranean meal. Our landlord graciously allowed us to pick lemons from his tree to complement our meal. It was a perfect way to end the day.

On our penultimate day, we rented a car and drove along the coast into Montenegro for the day. With the mountains on our left and the sparkling blue bay on our right, it was a spectacular drive. “It was as if the mountains were gently dipping their toes into the beautiful Bay of Kotor”, said our guidebook. What an apt description.

The fortifications that we passed along the way could not compare to those in Dubrovnik, yet they still had their charm. Feeling adventurous, we decided to veer inland for a quick peek at towns there. It was as if our rose-tinted glasses suddenly went missing. We approached a town that was drab, “tired” and lined with box-shaped functional architecture. While it surprised us, it made us aware that, like any other country, there was always the other side of the coin.

To sum up, both Croatia and Montenegro are true hidden gems. Tucked away in the Adriatic coast and spared from the ravages of war, they are both steeped in history and blessed with coastlines that are a must-see. Go during off-peak season, though.

No one can argue that a quintessential Mediterranean holiday is so much more enjoyable when it is also manageable on the wallet.

Tags / Keywords: Travel, Croatia, Dubrovnik, central Europe, former Soviet, Mediterranean, Split, Hvar Island

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